Julius Malema

Play us again, Sam. Play us as time goes by.

happier times

It was understandable that we’d start fantasizing about Thabo Mbeki and Julius Malema. Inevitable, even.

In the 1990s we thought we were God’s Rainbow People. Ten years later we believed we were the first flowering of the African Renaissance. Since the eruption of the Gupta e-mails, however, we have discovered what we truly are: slack-jawed, wide-eyed rubes being taken for a monumental ride; the butt of a gigantic, multinational, criminal joke.

It’s a tough thing to accept. Nobody likes being laughed at, especially not by hypocrite arseholes in pointy shoes and bulletproof SUVs.

But it’s not just insulting. It’s frightening, too. If you accept that our so-called leaders are mere bagmen and that almost every single aspect of national government is rotten to the core, then you have to accept that, for as long as the Zuptas remain in power, we are entirely rudderless, practically lawless and essentially stateless. In short: while anyone with Zuma in his or her surname controls this piece of land, South Africa does not exist in any meaningful way.

Which is why it was inevitable that we’d invite Mbeki and Malema into the spotlight and, at least for a few minutes, relegate the Zupta hyenas into the darkness.

It was Mbeki who appeared first, summoned like a ghost to a séance by Power FM almost two weeks ago. His familiar tones – the warmth of hot chocolate, the crackle of a fire in a room full of aromatic pipe smoke, the faint rustling of pseudo-intellectuals kowtowing at his slippers – revitalised a tired and gloomy nation. Social media heaped love on the former president and took a moment to remember a more dignified time when statesmen argued not over kickbacks and e-mails but beetroot and garlic and when a president didn’t fight to keep himself out of prison but rather fought tirelessly to save Zimbabwe from a vicious outbreak of democracy. Good, good times.

Having fondled the pre-Zupta past, we were ready to gaze into a post-Zupta future, and this weekend the Sunday Times obliged by interviewing Julius Malema.

Speaking with his familiar frankness, the Commander-In-Chief identified the greatest problem looming over South Africa right now, namely, that the media narrative has shifted away from Julius Malema.

It’s been a tough few months for the Commander. Venezuela and Zimbabwe, often cited by the EFF as poster children for its policies, can no longer even claim to be basket cases: the baskets have unravelled and the straw is being eaten by starving goats.

Worse, however, is that after some solid wins in parliament on Nkandla, the EFF and Malema have been relegated to mere spectators by the power struggle in the ANC: they, like the rest of us, are simply waiting to see if the party will commit ritual suicide by persisting with the Zuptas or whether it will opt for Cyril the Human Gag-Ball and stay in the low 50-percents until it dies in 2024.

Being an excellent politician, however, Malema understands how to wrest attention back to himself and to give the impression of a Napoleon on the march even if he’s just marking time. He knows seizing the initiative requires bold and militant action, even if that means speaking boldly and militantly straight out of one’s revolutionary butt.

Which is precisely what he did in the interview. The EFF, he claimed, was going to grow by 600% in the next 18 months and snatch 50% in 2019.

I assume space constraints meant the Sunday Times couldn’t print his other predictions, like the EFF’s Science Brigade perfecting cold fusion in 2021 and its History Commissars erasing all mention of Venezuela and Zimbabwe from its policy documents in 2022, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

Still, Malema did say one thing that I believe is gospel truth. Asked about working with the DA, he said: “Sometimes you use your enemies to achieve what you want to achieve.It’s a game and we are playing it to achieve what we want to achieve.”

And so on we tumble; the past getting brighter; the future just a game in which you and I are pieces to be played. And, if necessary, sacrificed.

*

Published in The Times

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The sext lives of politicians

Justice Minister Jeff Radebe

“…and about this long.”

Yesterday I read something that truly shocked me.

According to the Sunday Times, Jeff Radebe, Minister in the Presidency, had allegedly sent texts and e-mails of a sexual nature to a young government photographer, asking her to send him nude pictures of herself.

Wait, I haven’t got to the shocking part yet.

The photographer was reportedly suspended because of “improper behaviour” (we all know how hard this government comes down on improper behaviour) and, bizarrely, because of the sorts of clothes she wore in the presence of politicians.

That wasn’t the shocking bit either. No, what stunned me was the reaction to the story. Because there, in black and white, I read experts suggesting that the sext scandal had scuppered whatever chance Radebe had of becoming president.

I’m not sure which country those experts have lived in for the last decade, but in my country we have a president who was tried for rape and came through it absolutely unscathed. His loudest supporter at the time suggested that his accuser had had a good time. It was a vile and vastly destructive thing to say, but that statement did not stop Julius Malema from becoming the leader of a large party and it won’t stop him becoming president at some point.

Of course I’m not suggesting that Radebe hasn’t got problems. No doubt he lies awake every night, tossing and turning on that huge pile of money that senior ANC people use instead of mattresses, fretting about the coming months.

For starters, he’s got to time his leap off the sinking SS Zupta just right. Then there’s the wording of his inevitable not-quite-apology. This, at least, is less stressful because he can just plagiarise someone else’s: these days there’s a new one almost every week, delivered by one of the coterie of arse-kissers who put Zuma in power and kept him there, becoming gigantically wealthy as they helped him sell the country to the highest bidder.

The rhetoric is pious, full of resolutions to do better, but every single one of them is saying that same thing: “Baby? Babe? Please pick up. I was going through some stuff back at Polokwane…and…Also it’s not really my fault, you know? I mean, you don’t know what he’s like! He’s…well..I just want to let you know I’ve changed and I promise this time it’ll be different. For realsies.”

Yes, Jeff Radebe has plenty to vex him, but if anyone in Zuma’s South Africa still believes that explicit sexts are enough to hurt an embedded politician, they really haven’t been paying attention.

The story has been sold as faintly salacious but one should be cautious of seeing the sexual exploits of powerful people as some sort of entertainment, given their potential for exploitation, a wildly skewed power balance, and, frankly, abuse.

What do they write?

Still, it did make me wonder about the secret, digital sex lives of our senior politicians. Assuming that some of them have secret affairs with relative equals, what exactly do they write in those sweaty-palmed exchanges?

After all, desire is a fairly honest emotion but how do you express it when you’ve been trained since Comradegarten to speak in euphemisms? Are you able to suggest a lunchtime quickie in a nearby hotel or does everything sound like a policy statement? “Our position is that we are generally in favour of a potentiality in which we boost job creation in both the hospitality and prophylactic industries.”

Certainly, I would imagine that it’s important to take into account someone’s political ideology before embarking on a secret sext affair. For example, if an EFF member asks you for a picture that will make the earth move, he is almost definitely asking for a photo of a tractor-manufacturing plant in the former Soviet Union.

Likewise, if you’re going to get steamy with a senior DA type, you should probably abandon some of your more traditional romantic preconceptions. “Send me a picture of you…No, that one’s got a poor person in the background. Please put it on a bus to Wolwerivier and then take the pic again. OK. Good. Hot. Now show me the benefits of colonialism! Yes! Put on a pair of jodhpurs and straddle a railway line. Oh god yes, you really float my gunboat.”

But whatever you do, and whomever you do it with, do not have an online affair with someone high up in the ANC. Because we all know how that ends.

He’ll tell you he looks like Idris Elba. You’ll ask for a picture. He’ll send you a picture of Idris Elba. You’ll say, “Wait, this is Idris Elba”, and he’ll say you’re a racist who works for the CIA. You’ll say, “It’s over, I’m mailing a picture of a tractor-manufacturing plant to the Commander-In-Chief,” and he’ll beg you to stay. He can change. He was wrong. He’ll do anything. Except, you know, actual governance.

Yes, we’ve all been there. Many still are. And it’s time for that sordid little affair to come to an end.

*

Published in The Times

“It’s not sinking, it’s a submarine!”

titanic

Had Angie Motshekga been the owner of the White Star shipping line on the morning of April 15, 1912, history might have sounded quite different.

As flashbulbs popped and journalists shouted questions, she and her team would have shuffled into place behind a table. An appeal for quiet; and then the big news, delivered with half a smile: White Star Lines was delighted to announce that early this morning the RMS Titanic had become the world’s first passenger submarine.

She was still verifying the figures, but it looked like almost a third of the passengers had survived, and she wished to extend warm congratulations to them and their families.

I like to imagine that a sensible public would have howled her down and run her out of town, but after last week I’m not so sure.

Instead of uniting to mourn the countless young lives trapped in a sinking system and dragged down into the deep, many South Africans instead argued over the matric results as if there was something to argue about; as if we’re still unsure about whether this is working or not; as if our schooling system might still turn out to be a submarine rather than a wreck.

Perhaps the confusion is understandable. Assumptions, both sensible and false, are wobbling. What once felt like bedrock now shifts like jelly under our feet. It is increasingly difficult to know what to think, indeed, to share ideas at all. Who, these days, would risk the wrath of one of the many inquisitions doing the rounds, or has the energy to take on the legions of know-nothings?

All of which is why I’m going to stick to a few simple guidelines in the year ahead; not so much resolutions as gentle reminders to myself: Post-It notes stuck on the fridge of my subconscious.

The first is to keep remembering that this year our politicians are going to say a lot of words, because that’s how politicians make money. When they say those words I’m going to want to believe that they have some connection with reality and I’m going to want to catch feelings. But that’s what the politicians’ financial planners want me to do: every time we take the bait and get worked up, we send up dust and smoke and noise, a great smokescreen that allows the looters to steal a few million more. So in 2017 I’m going to try to count to 10 and opt out of actively making the conmen richer.

They will clutch portraits of Oliver Tambo

I will also look up the definition of “gaslighting” just to remind myself of what it looks like, and who does it, and why. Because this year, as senior gang bosses shift allegiances to get a better grip on the teat, they’re going to tell me that I’m mistaken for thinking poorly of them. They will clutch the constitution or the Bible or portraits of Oliver Tambo and insist that they never voted to entrench corruption and that if I still believe them to be scoundrels then the problem must lie with me. Yes, “gaslighting” is definitely one to remember in 2017.

(Note to self: remember to keep some salt aside to sprinkle over think-pieces about how the deputy president is going to grab the controls and pull us out of our current dive. Having watched Cyril the Human Ball-Gag smile and nod his way through the calculated dismantling of accountability and good governance in this country, I will emulate him by simply smiling and nodding.)

The next Post-It is just a number: 8.5. That’s the percentage of my compatriots who voted for the EFF. Which is why, when I read tumescent prose about how the EFF is a giant, red tsunami, I will remind myself that there are more left-handers in South Africa than Fighters.

Likewise, when the Commander-In-Chief denounces Jacob Zuma, I will recall how he made his career by giving us Zuma, and how he now furthers that career by attacking Zuma. (And yes, in fairness, I expect the president also features heavily in the prayers of Padre Maimane: “For what we are about to be handed on a silver platter in the next few months, may the Lord make us truly thankful…”)

Finally, I will try to remember that opinion is not news. Twitter is not a peer-reviewed journal, and shouting, “This is the worst year EVER!” reveals only that one knows very little about history. Most of all, pessimism is not insight. Rather, it is a narcotic fog we breathe, vented by millions of people seduced by misery; people who have watched footage of a distant massacre before they’ve got out of bed or read angry words on a screen before they’ve spoken to another human being. They are not informed: they are infected.

Right. The Post-Its are up. Let the noise begin. Hello 2017.

*

Published in The Times

After the fact

Zuma condition

It’s been a hell of a year.

Not only has iconoclastic artist Ayanda Mabulu been shot to death for painting rude pictures and Malia Obama enrolled at a Limpopo university, but Julius Malema has vowed to kill gay people and Jacob Zuma has revealed that he has a powerful sexual appetite for young women caused by a medical condition.

None of it was true, of course, but that didn’t seem to matter to the thousands of South Africans who shared those stories online.

Journalists are warning that we have entered the “post-fact” era, and, tired of being left behind global trends, South Africans seem determined to be in the vanguard of the new wave of completely fabricated news.

I must admit that I’m slightly hesitant to announce the end of the factual era, mainly because I’m not sure it ever started. I like an empirical measurement now and then, and it’s pretty important that we know when to plant crops and how to ward off gangrene. But you’ve got to admit that the history of our species is one long, glorious fiction, punctuated with a few alarming discoveries.

Once you’ve made it past the fact of your birth, and figured out how to co-exist with the fact of being a social animal, you’re likely to encounter only one more fact: death. The rest is an almost miraculous negotiated fantasy.

For example, let’s consider an idealised newspaper, printed early one Sunday morning in the golden era of “factual”, pre-internet, pre-Trump reporting.

Casting your eyes over a mass of tiny black marks on a white page – each of which has been agreed to represent a certain sound, which itself has been agreed to convey a certain agreed-upon meaning, you encounter reports about national news.

This “nation”, is, of course, an invention — a large group of people corralled inside an imaginary line called “the border” — while “news” is carefully curated fiction, selected for its power to keep certain fictions spinning along.

Turning the page, you reach the financial section, discussing an invented store of value, a trading tool called “money”.

Finally, sport: an odd pastime in which arbitrary physical jerks are reinterpreted as hopeful or exciting or consoling fictions.

Once you’ve digested this set of “facts”, you go back to your day: living in denial about how much imaginary value-store you have left in the non-existent vault you call a “bank account”; believing that your invented deity is more powerful than other invented deities; being suspicious of people from outside the imaginary border because their agreed-upon daydreams are different to yours and they might force you to replace yours with theirs…

fertile soil for barbarism

Of course, this approach is fertile soil for barbarism. If human rights are invented fantasies (and they are), then who is to say that they are more important than a despot’s desire to slaughter his enemies? If politics are a fiction (and they are) why should Donald Trump’s version of reality be any less acceptable than that of Bernie Sanders?

Well, I’m not a philosopher so I don’t have a concise or logically sound answer to those questions, but I do suspect that if we’re going to get anywhere in this collective dream of ours, we need to try to pin down a few basic assumptions.

One of these might be that some events are more harmful to us than others. For example, I have a sense that genocide is generally worse for everyone than peace, and that insular, bigoted, reactionary politics are generally more harmful to the forward-movement of a country than a more liberal approach.

In short, some fantasies need to be given more weight than others, and some “facts” need to be held dearer than others.

Proper journalists — trained to get as close to our agreed-upon truth as possible, with a sharp eye for manipulative waffle — are the keepers of that faith. And at the moment they’re in trouble. And yet, wasn’t that inevitable?

Our shared beliefs might be almost universal but they’re also shockingly fragile. An international border is a complex legal, political and military construct, but all it takes to obliterate it is a single step.

Likewise, ideas of fair play, tolerance and human solidarity are entirely helpless against some charismatic git shouting, “It ain’t so!” At the moment we all agree that the sun rises in the east, but east and west are fictions. If enough people repeated it on Facebook, trust me: the sun would start rising in the west.

So what’s the solution? I’m not entirely sure, but for me a useful start is to figure out which fictions are the least harmful to me and to the people I live alongside.

And perhaps it’s also worth remembering that marks on a page are just marks on a page. What they represent, well, you’d be surprised by how much of that is up to you.

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Pols, poles and polls

ANC-poster

High up in the sky, at the top of the tallest telephone pole in the street, Jacob Zuma is smiling like a dope.

His expression is that of a Roman emperor being fellated on a tiger skin while listening to an ensemble of harpists and a briefing from a temple priestess who had a dream in which the emperor was riding a burning elephant through a barley field, sure proof that this year’s crop will be the best ever. So pretty apt, really.

The impression of distant, untouchable, delusional power is reinforced by the location of Jacob Zuma’s face. In Cape Town, the ANC’s elections posters tend to be very high up on the lampposts. This is because if they are anywhere within reach, Capetonians tend to attack the placards, clawing and biting at the cardboard until it hangs in ragged shreds. Defacing campaign posters is illegal, but then again so is building a private home with public money, so perhaps we’ll call that one a draw.

Lower on the poles and lower in the polls, the DA candidates have grown wings: a clever designer has placed the hopefuls in front of the national flag so that colourful stripes rise from their shoulders like the feathery pinions of archangels. The trouble is, nobody likes people with wings.

Like that X-man with the giant pair, who looked like the unfortunate result of an upsetting tryst between a human and a swan. We were encouraged to pity him and the prejudice he faced, but I got to tell you, if I saw that dude flapping past me I would properly freak out and throw a wrench at him before the pro-mutant lobby could conscientise me. As for the other superheroes that had wings poking out of their shoulders: do you even remember their names? Was it Kiewiet-Girl? The Silver Hadeda? Night-Chicken?

Speaking of forgetting people’s names, the FF+ posters are next, emblazoned with the smiling face of Constand Viljoen. Ag, not him, the other one. Connie Mulder. No, wait, he was the Information Scandal guy. (To think that a government-funded newspaper used to be called a “scandal”. Bless.) So not Connie. His son. Something Mulder. Japie? Fox? Pieter! Anyway. There’s Pieter.

always leave ’em wanting more

There’s nobody on the EFF posters. That’s one of the fantastic benefits of a personality cult. You know The Face is etched into the hearts of the faithful, and by not showing The Face you remind everyone of The Face. First rule of razzle-dazzle showbiz: always leave ’em wanting more.

So there they are, all asking me to vote for them. Except for the EFF. They’re ordering me to vote for them. “VOTE EFF”, their poster says. I can respect that. It’s a clear, concise announcement of centralised, militarised power: a barked instruction, undiluted by wishy-washy nonsense like promises or explanations or track records.

Not like the ANC and DA posters. Those are full of – actually I’m not sure what they’re full of because, even though I’ve read them a thousand times, I can’t remember the words. To be fair, the ANC ones are too high up the pole to read clearly – something about power and people and Dora the Explorer’s pirate adventure, no, wait, that’s an ad for some school holiday theatre. But the DA slogan is actively repelling my mind. Why? Because for some reason they decided to use the word “progress”. And “progress”, my friends, is what polite teachers write in the report cards of idiot children. I know, because it’s what my music teacher used to write about me. “Tom is making steady progress through Mrs Tiggy-Winkle’s Book of Elementary Tunes for Tone-Deaf Children Who Can Only Use Two Fingers at a Time.”

Last week I wrote rather cynically about wanting better lies from politicians, but that supremely vague and euphemistic “progress” got me thinking about how tired I am of the jargon and the coded language, and it made me think about how refreshing it would be to hear the truth, no matter how banal or unsexy it might be.

Imagine how much more you’d respect the ANC if its posters showed Zuma mashing a slice of cake into his face under the slogan, “We were pretty fantastic until about 1998 and then the wheels fell off because let’s be honest, money is lekker, and in theory most of us would like to do the right thing but we’ve got hungry interior decorators to feed so please don’t cut us off.”

The DA? “A few parts of Cape Town are run like a Swiss watch-making factory and we might have just enough capacity to replicate that in one other metro, so pull in and it might be your metro! Maybe. Terms and conditions apply.” The FF+? “It’s flippen scary here, yo.”

The EFF, though, don’t need to change a thing. “VOTE EFF” says it all, doesn’t it?

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Still snorting the fairy dust

magic

The young woman at the clinic had just received unexpected and upsetting news: she was six months pregnant with a human baby.

The doctor gently asked her if she had noticed any changes in her body that might have revealed the living thing growing inside her. Yes, she said, of course she‘d noticed changes. She wasn’t stupid. She‘d just never considered the possibility that it might be a baby.

The doctor was confused. What had she thought it was? A magical frog, answered the young woman; probably put there by a witch paid off by someone who bore a grudge against her.

The doctor who told us the story had done enough community service in rural areas to know such things were complicated and not easily dismissed with a “she should know better”. But the man across the table from me was aghast. How could people still believe in magic in the 21st century? How could any country hope to move forward when people still held medieval beliefs?

It was a peculiar thing for him to say, mainly because he had made it clear that he was a proud Christian, which meant that his beliefs were also medieval. But, more importantly, it seemed odd for someone to dismiss one magical tradition while being an eager supporter of another, in his case a Middle Eastern one in which bushes talk, sticks turn into snakes, oceans part and people come back from the dead.

The religions imported from the Middle East have used extraordinary violence to rebrand themselves as non-magical, so it‘s understandable that believers would actively reject the idea of magic existing in the modern world. These days, though, you don‘t need to burn women for witchcraft to stamp out magic: you just need to let the routine of urban drudgery suck the fairy dust out of life.

These days, magic is seen as something for children and depressed illusionists lurking along rain-swept piers in the off-season. Which is an astonishing self-delusion, because almost every single one of us has a deep, unshakable belief in magic. No matter our faith, our traditions, our history or our education, almost everybody believes in the possibility of a single transformative moment — a flash of light, a blue fairy, a line of numbers on a Lotto ticket — that will turn bad into good, sadness into joy and a pile of straw into a heap of gold.

If only we smear snail goo on our face, we might be loved

If we weren’t steeped in magical fantasies, the advertising industry wouldn’t exist. We know that advertisements are lies, and that we are being deceived by people who are paid to suppress our critical faculties. And yet the ad industry is worth $600-billion a year because under our fashionable cynicism, deep down, we nurture the possibility of magic. If only we smear snail goo on our face, we might be loved. If only we drive that car, we might be popular. If we just do that one thing, the spell will be spoken, the room will glow, and everything will be instantly all right.

It might seem incongruous to find that childlike hope permeating our political landscape, a place where parasites are willing to kill each other for a place at the artery. But those parasites are there precisely because we South Africans can‘t break free of our belief in magic.

We’ve been inhaling the fairy dust forever. If we make the castle walls high enough we won‘t ever need to have any dealings with the natives. If we just kill our cattle, the whites will be flung into the sea. If the National Party can just find a way to separate whites and blacks, the Republic will thrive. If we can only end apartheid, Uhuru will follow. If we can just recall Mbeki we‘ll finally have the country we deserve. If they find a way to remove Zuma, everything will eventually be okay. If only Helen Zille ran this province, she’d fix everything! If only everyone could see sense and vote EFF, President Commander Malema will create a land of milk and honey!

On and on, the same fantasy. And as we dream, the cynical realists get richer and more powerful because they understand magic better than we do: the magic of rhetoric, of how to play to our self-delusion, of preaching revolution and anti-capitalism while investing their cash in the cold, hard, non-magical market.

I don‘t think we‘re going to abandon magic any time soon, but if we can begin to accept that we have a pathological weakness when it comes to charismatic men promising us instant, permanent fixes, then we might have a chance to begin pulling this country back on a path towards something better.

It‘s time to break the spell. It‘s time to wake up.

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

They’ll send your mom a telegram when you die

youth

The Americans counted their bullets, pressed their backs against the stack of Tintin books, and waited.

The Japanese army was everywhere. Half a dozen sappers were already crawling through the scattering of Lego blocks on the western perimeter, and there were rumours of a sniper up on the book shelf. Sarge bellowed into his radio again, begging for air cover, but the Mustang was still being refuelled under the duvet.

The Battle of the Bedroom Floor was interrupted by a polite knock on my door. Our house-guest had been sent to call me to dinner.

He was a plump, kind man with a shock of fading yellow hair and eyes that wrinkled to nothing when he smiled, which was often. His English was poor and so he adopted a jovial silence, beaming and nodding to show that he was enjoying the conversation if not contributing to it.

But now, as he looked at the toy soldiers strewn across the floor, his face was pale and unsmiling. Even though I was not yet 10, I realised that something had hurt him as he knocked and looked down. It had slipped through his defences because he had never expected to encounter it here, in the room of a child. He leaned against the doorframe, and seemed enormously tired.

“This is a game?” he asked. It didn’t sound like a question. It sounded like an accusation. Then the real question came.

“But why would you play this?”

Later, seeing my embarrassment, my parents explained.

Our guest was German and when he was in his late teens he had been drafted into Hitler’s navy and sent aboard the battleship Tirpitz. The ship was relentlessly hunted and spent the war limping from one Norwegian fjord to another, where steep mountains and shallow water offered some protection from the British bombers and submarines that pursued it. Forty years later, that fear still clung to our guest: many of the Cape’s coastal roads, where mountains plunge into the sea, made him anxious.

In the end the bombers found their target. The Tirpitz was destroyed, along with 1000 of its crew.

Our guest survived the attack and the war. Millions didn’t. All of his brothers were drafted and killed. Hitler sent his mother a medal for surrendering so many of her babies to the meat grinder.

“But why would you play this?” At the time, I thought I heard disbelief in his voice and that was why I was embarrassed. I thought he was saying: “You stupid child, how could you take any pleasure from war?”

We swear that now we know better

Now, though, I think I understand his tone better. It wasn’t disbelief. It was despair.

When industrialised killing ends, we bow our heads and swear that now we know better. Those working to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive say, “Never again.” In those first moments after the killing stops, it seems the most fundamental truth that it should never start again; that war is an obscene crime.

And yet here I was: a child, playing at mass murder. Somewhere in those first eight or nine years I had learned that war was fun. And I think that’s why the kind, anxious German felt overcome with despair. We had learned nothing.

I wonder what that damaged man would say about our politics, where every day the imagery and rhetoric of war become more entrenched and more normalised. Jacob Zuma now goes nowhere without a platoon of helmeted, camouflaged stormtroopers carrying assault weapons. The EFF, already fond of uniforms and talk of fighting, crushing, overthrowing and destroying, has begun to let its civilian veneer slip: Julius Malema has spoken publicly about waging war against the current government, and at the party’s election manifesto launch, leaders were flanked by enormous men in camouflage fatigues.

Revolutionaries like to warn us about how deeply we’ve been indoctrinated by racism, sexism and capitalism. Yet, oddly, for people who claim to be fighting for a peaceful future run by civilians, they remain silent about militarism. Both left and right still recite the utterly discredited Victorian euphemisms for killing to make a few profiteers richer: “the fallen”, “the ultimate sacrifice”, “the glorious dead”, “martyrs”. Basically, all the stuff Hitler told that man’s mother.

It seems ridiculous that one needs to spell it out. You’d think we’d know by now; that we might have learned to stop playing at soldiers like ignorant 9-year-olds. But since we haven’t, here goes.

War is bad.

Those who use its rhetoric have no plans to do any actual fighting. They’ll leave that to you, but if you get killed they’ll do their best to send your mother a telegram.

The people who will win will not be your friends. They will not look after you when it’s over.

So to those South Africans cheering the war-talk, I ask again: “Why would you play this?”

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail